Maybe it’s cevapi (a Balkan meat dish), or souvlaki (a popular dish in Greek cuisine), or mbanga soup (a type of soup in Nigeria).
Whatever it is, there’s no question that the NBA has an increasingly international flavor, reflected in Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic’s apparent selection as the league’s MVP for the second straight year. (An informed source told the Associated Press that there will be an announcement at any time.)
It would be the fourth time in a row that the MVP is foreign, something never seen in the NBA.
The Serbian was chosen over the Greek Giannis Antetokounmpo, winner of this award twice, and the Cameroonian Joel Embiid, in another unprecedented event. The three most voted had never been foreigners.
The NBA playoffs are filled with outsiders, including Slovenian Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks.
The presence of dominant foreign figures was one of the objectives of commissioner David Stern, who considered the NBA as a league with international projection and insisted on promoting its expansion outside the United States.
“It’s David Stern’s dream,” Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said. “Outside they are also good. It is a world game. It’s not just us anymore, no matter what ‘we’ means. It’s a global sport and that’s good.” He was referring to the historical superiority of the US players, which is no longer as pronounced.
The impact of the presence of players from abroad is felt not only in the United States. It increases the fervor for the sport in countries with a basketball tradition such as Serbia and Greece. Antetokounmpo won two MVP awards in a row, in 2019 and 2020, and now Jokic, the pride of Sombor (Serbia), repeats that achievement.
“We are a basketball country. This is further proof that we are the best,” said Marko Cosic, who managed Jokic as a teenager at Belgrade’s Mega club. “It is not easy for a country like Serbia, with 7 million inhabitants, to compete with the rest of the world.”
Cosic, now a professor at the University of Belgrade, said Jokic’s style of play “is pure poetry…he is an artist.”
Jokic, 27, averaged 27.1 points with 13.8 rebounds and 7.9 assists in the regular season.
On the NBA’s European platforms, content about Antetokounmpo has an audience that is 100% higher than the average posts, according to the NBA. Jokic’s is 10% more popular than average.
The sale of subscriptions to watch NBA games via streaming (the NBA League Pass) increased by 17% in Serbia, 14% in Slovenia and 9% in Greece this season compared to last. In Africa it increased a combined 40%, although the NBA does not disclose the total number of subscribers.
The NBA has two preseason games scheduled between the Bucks and the Atlanta Hawks in Abu Dhabi in October. It will be the first time the NBA has visited the United Arab Emirates and the Persian Gulf.
It’s impossible to overestimate the impact Antetokounmpo has had on Greece, as a player and as a person. The son of Nigerian immigrants, he got his Greek passport shortly before being selected in the 2013 NBA draft. “Giannis is an idol. He improves the image of Greece. He is a global ambassador for Greece,” said Vassilis Skountis, who broadcasts NBA games on Cosmote TV.
The sports media in Greece talk mostly about football, basketball and Giannis.
In fact, Antetokounmpo is a separate news category. All their matches are broadcast live, regardless of the time, and their performances are analyzed.
Parents love him, children want to be like him.
“He is Greek, a spectacular player, very strong. He dives, he wins championships, he plays for the national team,” Skountis said. “In Greece all the boys want to be like Giannis.”
In Cameroon, and throughout Africa, where soccer is the most popular sport, Embiid is considered an exemplary figure, as is Antetokounmpo.
“These guys who come from outside are working twice as hard as everyone else,” said Joe Touomou, assistant head coach of the NBA African Academy. “When it comes to competing, you see the result of that effort. That is why those three foreigners are at the top.”
The NBA is helping to promote basketball in Africa, opening an academy and teaming up with FIBA (the international sports federation) to set up a continental club competition similar to the European soccer Champions League.
Rivers is excited by what he sees.
“I went to Africa a couple of years ago, to Dakar, and it’s amazing, really,” he said. “There is nothing like the NBA academy in Africa.”
The Basketball Without Borders organization plays a key role, organizing annual events that allow top African prospects to meet NBA players and coaches.
Embiid was a skinny, shy kid when he participated in one of those events in 2011. “To be honest, it wasn’t the best promise we had,” said Touomou, a Cameroonian friend of Embiid’s family. But he was tall, he had good coordination “and he was ruthless.”
Rumors are circulating that Embiid wants to obtain French citizenship in order to be able to wear the “bleu” jersey at the 2024 Paris Olympics. Cameroonians would surely forgive him since what matters most to them is football.
In the basketball nations of Europe, winning medals with a country is as important, if not more so, than succeeding in the NBA.
With Jokic’s input, Serbia took the silver medal at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. He did not participate in the qualifying tournament for the Tokyo Games last year, saying he was exhausted from the NBA campaign, in which he won his first MVP. Serbia hosted the qualifying tournament and fell in the decisive match against Italy.
“Whatever problem they have with the Serbian team, they have to try to solve it,” said Andrija Pavlovic, a Serbian basketball fan who lives in London. “We need it. We have been very successful in the past. It’s a tradition we want to keep.”